Sunday, May 6, 2012

What Is Writing Style?

I submitted a manuscript to an agent a few years ago. She had warmed to my plot, but she didn’t like my writing style. Since I didn’t understand what writing style was I couldn’t fix it, so I looked it up on the Internet. What defines writing style?

One Internet hit likened style to POV; another source listed various genres as if style was synonymous with genre. Yet another source stated that using proper grammar was the key to having a good style (ya think that’s necessary, do ya?), and another talked of increasing your creativity through figurative speech (I’ll be damned!). The lack of a cohesive definition had me wondering if another source would refer to style as font.

In short, I don’t think anyone has a definition of writing style.

To me, writing style is partly the cadence of words, word choice and attitude in narrative and dialogue. My “style” of writing varies with the voice of my POV, and since I often write in multiple POV, the writing style changes from chapter to chapter depending on the POV presented.

If two police detectives, partners, are discussing the case, they can interact in a staccato of dialogue—finishing each other’s sentences, interrupting or sparking ideas in each other. A seventeenth-century character has slower, more elegant speech un-bastardized by modern slang (although he may have a few belonging to his own time) or mechanization. My main character, a contemporary American woman in her early thirties, thinks in simple declarative sentences stating her logic while revealing her emotion in her actions. She can be terse when under duress.

My writing “style” isn’t mine so much as my character’s voice that includes attitudes, thought patterns and rhythm. If that is so, then I conclude that the agent didn’t like my characters. But I’m not sure if I’ve defined it correctly. How do you define writing style?


  1. I'm tempted to compare style to pornography, i.e., I can't define it but I know if when I see [read] it.

  2. No--think about it--so the rest of us understand it. Is it POV? Is it tone? What??? A reference perhaps?

  3. Let me try again. having read many of their works I can read a passage by an unknown author and think, "This sounds like Twain's use of dialect, Chekov's power of imagery, or Lincoln's view of humanity." I am told when I was completely out of it following one of my stem cell transplants a doctor assessing mental status asked me what his name was, I sighed and asked my wife to get his business card out of my wallet because, "The doctor want to know what he name is." I don't remember it, but it sounds like something I would say.

  4. E.B., I think what the agent may have been talking about is also often called "voice." The writer's voice, not the character's voice.

    This includes the writer's attitude toward her/his characters and subject matter, his/her word choice and syntax, her/his way of handling dialogue, description, and background. Think of Julia Spencer-Fleming or Louise Penny or Margaret Maron or Nancy Pickard. All four give their characters distinct voices and points of view, yet you can pick up one of their novels and know (without seeing the cover or title page) that this book is by Maron or Pickard or Spencer-Fleming or Penny. That is voice--or less accurately, style.

  5. I think Linda approaches the definition that I would agree with. Even in a critique group, after you've seen a few submissions from co-members, you can recognize who submitted what. It's how the author treats her characters. If she's writing about someone poor or uneducated does she condescend or incorporate veiled instructions about how the characters could pull themselves up by their boot straps or does she just show the character with genuine thoughts and emotions?

  6. Linda, the writer's attitude I've always known as being "tone, " not writing style. Subject matter, word choice and syntax I understand, but if you write in multiple POV, those also change with the character.

    What you're describing, Pauline, again, I've always heard defined as tone.

    I know all of this is sort of symantics, and yet when you do get criticism that you don't understand, it's frustrating. I know that I've put some of my critique partners on the spot with pointed questions. But every once in a while, one of them really pinpoints a problem.

    Throwing out lofty terms, such as "writing style," which has such a general meaning doesn't do much good.

    It will be interesting to see if the "new" Robert Parker maintains the real Robert Parker's writing style--tone, POV, whatever.

  7. E. B., "voice" is more than the writer's attitude or tone. It includes that, along with the other elements I listed. It's what makes one writer's work differ from another's. Why those four writers I mentioned (among many others) can vary with POV and character and yet have a distinctive voice book after book that reads like no one else's.

  8. So maybe tone is part of style. Does a person dress to impress others with how fashionable, smart, educated,sexy,or funny he/she is? Do their words seem to come from somewhere deep inside or are they what you'd expect a person to use in general adult conversation? What is individual about what the person says and how they say it? When you meet someone for the first time, you start forming an opinion, sometimes that can be based on seterotyping but sometimes it's a gut reaction. Trying to be helpful.

  9. I don't mean to be argumentative, Pauline. The concept seems elusive to me. Maybe I'm just dense. I know what you're saying, and yet, most of those authors write in one POV throughout a book. I'm not sure I could pick out a Nancy Pickford from a Margaret Maron, other than from the names of the characters.

    When an author channels a character--yes the words are the writer's choice--but they should sound and feel different from the other characters, so is it the writer's style or just the character's voice?

    But what you all are saying is that regardless, you can still pick out the name of the author.

    Other than Susan Wittig Albert's Beatrix Potter series, I'm not sure that I can.

  10. EB, I deliberately chose those four writers because they write similar books in some ways and yet their works are undoubtedly their own. Nancy Pickard's voice is definitely different from Margaret Maron's and from Louise Penny's or Julia Spencer-Fleming's. Nancy's books (other than her early Jenny Cains) are written from multiple third-person viewpoints, as are Margaret's, Julia's, and Louise's. And yes, each of the characters has a different "voice," but the author's "voice" lies like an artistic fingerprint over all.

  11. I think I'll have to study this a bit more. I understand what you are saying. The problem is, that as an auditory learner, I need to hear it--to me that's voice. So, I'll try to hear between the notes. Thanks for everyone's help.

  12. Agreed that voice, style, and tone are interconnected in complicated ways, but what if we thought about them in fashion terms? So voice = what we use to tell the story (our specific/personal way of using words, our textual body, so to speak) and style = how we present/dress it (long vs. short, baroque vs minimalist, etc.). Tone = the attitude: for example you can wear a miniskirt seriously or you can wear it in a more self-aware, ironic way...

  13. A fun analogy, CK. But wouldn't all of those items change with a change in character?

  14. Oh, I understand. Yes, the style *could* change when the author is writing from different character perspectives. Perhaps one character thinks/speaks like Johnny Noir but if you switch POV, the next character thinks/speaks like Effusive Rich Lady.

    Yet typically the overall style remains constant enough to create a unity of the book, (unless it's something avant garde or extremely postmodern), right? Plus, different genres traditionally have expected styles (think of the differences between sentence structures of, say, a romance and thriller...and I know that's a huge generalization but hopefully it helps illustrate).

    But it IS confusing to hear because people often DO use "voice," "style," and "tone" interchangeably.

  15. When an author channels a character--yes the words are the writer's choice--but they should sound and feel different from the other characters, so is it the writer's style or just the character's voice?

    I vote that this is character voice but that our writerly voice is always the foundation for everything, so the writer is sort of dressing up like the character.

    Sorry to be so talkative but it's a great topic!

  16. Oops, didn't finish that last post.

    I vote that this is character voice but that our writerly voice is always the foundation for everything, so the writer is sort of dressing up like the character.
    The writer's stylistic choices translate the character's voice. Because I think that's where craft comes's not like we are possessed by character voice (although obviously they can be insistent) but we shape them. Does that make sense?

  17. Linda, I think comes closest. If five painters using water colors all painted a landscape from the same vantage, the painting would be similar in subject but different in appearance due to different painting styles.
    Of course, writers change what they write according to which character they are depicting but there are similarities particular to each writer that extends between characters, subject matter and works. Sometimes it's possible to parody writers by exaggerating their peculiarities.

  18. Yes, I've seen that done, Warren. But I hope that in different POVs, the writer's style is different just as the voice is different. It's one of the reasons that I only bought one Pearl Jam CD. It all sounds so much the same, as if they are playing the same songs over and over with a little variation. Why buy more of the same?

    And yet, there are bands like the Rolling Stones that can play anything and I'll still know it is them and it's not all the same.

    I can understand style in terms of music, perhaps better than in writing. And if I can get a handle on writing style perhaps I can develop my own. But if it just means more of the same, I'm not sure that's a good thing since it can get boring after a while.

  19. This is an excellent topic, but hard to define. Like I know what makes a person classy, in my opinion, and it has nothing to do with money, but it's something one feels about that person when they meet them.

    I like Linda's definition and the four authors she chose. I'd include Jane Langton, too. I would know her books in a minute even if the main characters' names were changed. Part of a writers' style could include how they use definition. Some include a lot, others almost none. Humor also could count. Some writers use none, others a lot and some just a slight touch, and some writers' humor seems forced and unnatural. Body language, too. Some writers use very little, some the right amount, in my opinion, and I've actually read books where the writer went overboard with it.

    I like Warren's definition of painters. I remember taking art classes in which we all had the same still life to paint and not one of our paintings were alike, and it wasn't necessarily the skill level, either.

    CK and Pauline have some valid points, too. The characters' voices are how we, the writer, view them.

    When I started writing my first book, I was co-writing it with one of my sisters. It was too hard because of the distance in miles and we couldn't get together often so I soon continuted on my own. Eventually, except for a few lines, my sister's words came out, not because they weren't good, but
    because they didn't fit my voice.

    So E.B. I wouldn't worry if one agent, publisher, etc. didn't care for your style. It's pretty subjective. I've read or started plenty of books in which I didn't care for the writing style, but they were published and others read and liked them.

  20. Maybe I'm getting too analytical (occupational hazard) but I do think there are different kinds of voices--the writer/author's voice, which stays unique to them no matter what they write, and the character's voice, which the author can change through stylistic choices.

    And as you said, EB, as readers, we *hear* the styles of characters AS voices--and as you said, Gloria, we can also recognize a character trait based on an intangible element--which is determined by the author's voice AND subsequent stylistic choices, which can create another level of voice (the character's).

    It sounds boring when I try to explain it, but I actually think there's a bit of alchemy involved, too.

  21. Maybe try imagining a movie of Cinderella directed by Frederico Fellini, Igmar Bergman, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorcese. Same characters, same script, but you aren't going to get the same style. The movie that plays in your head when you see a book will be changed by the style of the writer, even though you as a reader have more involvement in shaping it.

  22. EB, I think you hit it perfectly when you said what you did about the Rolling Stones. As an auditory learner, music may be your best way of understanding this. How is it that you can always tell a Stones song or a Beatles song? And how is it that a Beatles song will be subtly different from a Wings/McCartney song, even though McCartney wrote and sang many of the Beatles songs?

    When I teach creative writing, I always tell my students that "voice" comes from all the individual choices the writer makes in the piece. Every writer will make those choices differently, and the sum of all those choices adds up to that writer's voice. When we say a student or young writer hasn't found her/his voice yet, what we mean is that the writer hasn't developed a coherent way of making the multitude of choices that a writer makes in every poem, story, or novel.

    Our reaction to a writer's voice is very subjective. I'm a big fan of the four writers I named, and they've won many awards and are all NYT bestsellers, but I know people who dislike one or more of them or (if not actively dislike0 just don't much care for them.

    So I think your message is to keep trying agents. that agent, by telling you she didn't like your style or voice, was basically saying, "Your'e not my cup of tea, cut you might be someone else's."

  23. Thanks for all the analogies, from Cinderella to Woody Allan, but I have to admit, as an auditory learner, the music analogy has given me the most insight. Perhaps, that's why I've confused style with voice. I "hear" the characters loud and clear, whereas the writer's style--no, not so much. I suspect I have some learn'in to do.

    Thanks everyone for trying to teach me what writing style is--I have a better understanding than yesterday, but I have to admit--after having several short stories published--I'm clueless as to what my style is like!

  24. The writer who comes to mind with a definite "style" is Megan Abbot. I have to admit, I found her style irritating, but she's highly regarded, so what do I know? The book I read, her debut novel, Die a Little, took place in the fifties, so there was a strong sense of time. Generally, I like noir novels, but Abbot's style turned me off to the story--it was that distinct.

    I think Robert B. Parker had a definite style, as does James Lee Burke and Mo Hayder. You can pick up any one of their books without knowing who wrote them, and within a few pages, you'd know.

    Style is like art. You can tell certain artists by the way they stroke their brush or by the colors they use. A writer's "brush," if you will, is defined by the way s/he uses language or dialogue, how he delineates his characters, whether in multiple POV, first or third person, etc. When we find a "style" we like, we will revisit that author for each new book.